Comparing the 2013 and 2018 Lowell Floods

City of Lowell / 4/19/2013

Now that the water has retreated to below the banks of the Grand River, this seems like a good time to recap recent events. With a crest of 18.2 feet, the floodwaters that hit Lowell this week weren’t the same as those that deluged the downtown five years ago. However, they were close enough to invite comparison.

What’s more, some local leaders say the 2013 flood helped shaped the city response to the 2018 event. “Because of the 2013 flood, the city was very aware of where the flooding would occur and how it would advance up the roads in the neighborhoods,” says former Mayor Jim Hodges. Plus, the 2013 flood helped area non-profits understand the needs of local residents so they could quickly jump into action this year.

Here’s a full recap of the 2018 flood and how it compared to the events from five years prior.

Fast Facts about the Lowell Floods

First, let’s take a look at the basic facts from each flooding event.

2013 Lowell Flood

Photo: National Weather Service

Initial Flood Warning: April 17, 2013
Initial Crest Projection: 19.6 feet
Highest Crest Projection: 21 feet
Actual Crest: 19.02 feet
Crest Date: April 21, 2013
End of Flooding Event: April 25, 2013
Severity of Flood: Record setting flood for Lowell

2018 Lowell Flood

The Grand River overtakes homes on Friday where Jackson and Division meet.  Photo courtesy of Jeff Ostrander 2/23/18.

Initial Flood Warning: February 20, 2018
Initial Crest Projection: 18.5 feet
Highest Crest Projection: 18.6 feet
Actual Crest: 18.2 feet
Crest Date: February 24, 2018
End of Flooding Event: February 28, 2018
Severity of Flood: Fourth worst flood for Lowell

Predictions for the 2013 flood were fueled by 48 hours of expected heavy rainfall. What’s more, water levels on the Flat River were expected to rise three feet as well.

Meanwhile, in 2018, heavy rains combined with a foot of melting snow contributed to the flooding.

Key Players in the Flood Response

Next, let’s look at who was leading the city response in each year.

2013 Leadership Team

Mayor: Jim Hodges
City Manager: Mark Howe
DPW Director: Dan DesJarden
Police Chief: Barry Getzen
Fire Chief: Frank Martin
Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor: Mark Mundt

2018 Leadership Team

Mayor: Mike DeVore
City Manager: Mike Burns
DPW Director/Assistant City Manager: Rich LaBombard
Police Chief: Steve Bukala
Fire Chief: Ron van Overbeek
Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor: Mark Mundt

Lowell’s First Look reached out to all the individuals listed above with the exception of Getzen, for whom we did not have contact information. We were able to speak to Hodges, Howe, DesJarden and Martin. We received written comments from LaBombard and Mundt.

Information provided by these individuals, as well as public records from each year’s flood, was used to prepare this article.

City Response to the Floods

The city’s response to each flood varied slightly although both years included a focus on communicating with citizens and informing the public of expected impacts.

2013 Lowell Flood

  • Water levels monitored locally as well as using the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service from the National Weather Service.
  • Twice daily meetings held among executive team during first days of flooding event followed by daily meetings.
  • Press conferences held as needed.
  • Flyers hand delivered to all residents on the east side of town warning of a potential loss of power.
  • Dedicated webpage launched for flood updates.
  • Updates posted to City of Lowell Facebook page.
  • Additional police patrols scheduled.
  • Fire station staffed 24/7.
  • City Hall staffed from 8am-8pm with DPW workers and other critical staff on stand-by.
  • Meeting for downtown merchants hosted at City Hall.
  • Red Cross contacted for relief efforts.
  • Three bypass pumps used to remove water from the storm water collection system to avoid sewer back-ups.
  • Residents urged to use water conservatively.
  • Requirement for street parking permits waived during flooding and recovery
  • Volunteers recruited to fill sandbags which were distributed free of charge to area residents and businesses.
  • Local state of emergency declared.

2018 Lowell Flood

  • Daily visits made to Saranac and Ionia to evaluate conditions there in anticipation of similar conditions in Lowell.
  • Daily flood coordination meetings held among executive team.
  • Daily press briefings scheduled.
  • Press releases issued daily during days of peak flooding.
  • Updates posted to City of Lowell Facebook page.
  • Rescue boat at Stoney Lakeside Park moved to higher ground in anticipation of flooding.
  • Equipment stored at fairgrounds moved off-site.
  • Additional police patrols scheduled.
  • Requirement for street parking permits waived during flooding and recovery.
  • City requested 20 yards of sand from the Timpson sand mine to be made available to residents wishing to make sandbags.
  • Two bypass pumps used to remove water from the storm water collection system to avoid sewer back-ups.

In both years, city staff spent considerable effort working to keep residents informed as the flooding occurred. While the 2018 team used daily press conferences and press releases to share information, the 2013 approach seemed to favor social media and door-to-door efforts. Hodges says one of his memories of the 2013 flood is walking up and down Main Street to answer merchant and resident questions.

The only substantial differences in the city response between the two years was the use of sandbags and the decision to declare a state of emergency. While Mayor Hodges declared a local state of emergency in 2013, similar action was not taken this year. Kent County did declare a state of emergency for 2018, but it is unclear whether that action will allow the city to receive any state of federal money for flood recovery efforts.

As for sandbags, DesJarden says there was no question about providing sandbags for the 2013 flood. The former DPW director says that in his time with the city – dating back to 1982 – sandbags were always prepared any time the river was expected to exceed 17 feet. With the 2013 flood expected at one point to crest at 21 feet, sandbags were a given.

Howe and Martin both say the city might have overestimated the need for sandbags, and volunteers made more than were needed. However, DesJarden says the city recouped most of its costs for sandbag through FEMA reimbursements.

The extra sandbags also ended up being fortuitous for Grandville. After the waters in Lowell crested, the city sent the unused, leftover sandbags to help shore up the Grandville wastewater treatment plant which was in jeopardy of being breached by floodwaters there.

In 2018, the city choose not to organize volunteers to fill sandbags although it did obtain sand from Timpson sand mining. The sand was made available to residents free of charge although they would need to provide their own bags. When asked why the city didn’t lead an effort to fill sandbags this year, Burns said he didn’t think he had the manpower available to do so.

City Impact from the Floods

With higher waters, the 2013 flood closed more roads, but the overall impact was similar both years.

2013 Lowell Flood

  • All streets south of Main and between Division and Monroe closed.
  • Bowes Road closed.
  • Avery Street between Monroe and Washington closed.
  • Riverwalk flooded.
  • Main Street (M-21) closed.
  • Hudson Street was in danger of being closed.
  • Flooding in downtown business basements.
  • Flooding of homes in Jackson/Front Street neighborhood.
  • Electrical power to east side of city threatened.

2018 Lowell Flood

  • All streets south of Main and between Division and Monroe closed.
  • Bowes Road closed.
  • Avery Street by the police station closed due to storm water back-ups.
  • Flooding in downtown business basements.
  • Flooding of homes in Jackson/Front Street neighborhood.
  • Minor water on Main Street due to storm system being overwhelmed.
  • Some sewer back-ups reported in houses

As the city’s low spots along the river, both the Front Street neighborhood and Bowes Road closed for each flood event. In 2013, waters crept high enough to shut down Main Street as well. Since it’s a state highway, the state ultimately makes the call on closing Main Street, but the city pushed for the action. Cars traveling through the water were creating waves that pushed additional water into homes and businesses along the road, and city officials were eager do whatever they could to minimize the possibility of floodwaters filling basements.

During that year’s record flood, the Hudson Street bridge over the Grand River was nearly closed as well. However, the city was saved by an offer of concrete barriers from Timpson. “The county was actually going to close that road,” DesJarden remembers. However, between the concrete barriers and sandbags, the city was able to keep a line of traffic open. “John Timpson was a big help with that one,” DesJarden says.

The other major difference between 2013 and 2018 was a threat to the city’s electrical system which occurred during the earlier flood. As waters rose along the Flat River, a transformer near the riverbank was in danger of being flooded. If that happened, power would have to be cut to residents on the east side of town. Fortunately, sandbags and a lower than expected crest kept the lights on. Since then, that transformer has been relocated to elsewhere.

While there were reported sewer back-ups in 2018 because of an overtaxed wastewater system, it’s unclear if the same happened in 2013. But in both years, the city set up bypass pumps to take water out of manholes and assist in maintaining operations at the wastewater treatment plant. “Although we processed a lot of extra water, the wastewater plant did stay in compliance with its discharge permit in 2013, and we anticipate the same for this event,” Mundt says.

Lowell Flood Recovery Efforts

As is always the case, Lowell residents pull together in time of need.

2013 Lowell Flood

  • Emergency shelter established by Red Cross at First Baptist Church.
  • FROM coordinated relief effort after crest.
  • Meals and assistance provided by Lowell Methodist Church.
  • Clean-up training provided by Lowell Methodist Church.
  • Red Cross provided clean-up kits to impacted residents.
  • Wet sandbags collected by the city for disposal.

2018 Lowell Flood

  • FROM coordinating recovery effort.
  • Meals and assistance provided by Lowell Methodist Church.
  • Meals provided by Red Cross.
  • Red Cross providing clean-up kits to impacted residents.

The City of Lowell is still recovering from the 2018 flood so the list of relief activities for this year could still expand. However, it’s clear that non-profit organizations such FROM, Red Cross and the United Methodist Church are ready to step up whenever there is a need in the community.

That seems to be the overarching theme from both the 2013 and 2018 Lowell floods. When the city is facing trouble, people step up to help. From its city leaders to its residents to its business owners, Lowell is a community that won’t let a little water get it down.

Looking Way Back to the 2004 Flood

While preparing this story, we found these photos from the National Weather Service.

Kevin Vezino / National Weather Service
Kevin Vezino / National Weather Service

Remember the 2004 flood? At 17.17 feet, it ranks seventh among historic crests for Lowell.

Want to Read More about the Lowell Floods?

If you want to read more about Lowell flooding, try these links:

To Work by Watercraft – This article by Treatment Plant Operator highlights how the Lowell wastewater treatment plant survived the 2013 flood intact.

City of Lowell 2013 Updates – For a walk down memory lane, visit this webpage that includes all the city updates for the 2013 flood.

City of Lowell 2018 Press Briefings – Videos of all the City of Lowell press briefings from this year can be found on the Lowell’s First Look YouTube Channel. Press releases were also posted on the City of Lowell Facebook page and Lowell’s First Look Facebook page.

Lowell Flood Photos – Check out last week’s Scenes from Lowell article for more images from the recent flood.

Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service – Finally, you can monitor the Grand River levels yourself using this website from the National Weather Service

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